United States – Denise Scott Brown and her husband Robert Venturi are among the most influential architects of the 20th century, both in theory and practice. Based on numerous personal encounters and an evolving transgenerational friendship, Colombian writer and curator Andres Ramirez reflects upon Denise’s legacy as architect and thinker.
At the time of our first meeting, Denise was 85 and I was 30. Denise showed me pictures she had taken on her iPhone while traveling by train from Philadelphia to New York, capturing the vestiges of industry along the way. Long before Las Vegas she learned how to use a camera, not merely to document building forms, but to explore and express ideas about architecture. Photography helped her understand the radically different environments she stepped into as a young architect. ‘I was passionately taking photographs of things I liked that had to do with ideas,’ she told me. It soon occurred to me that photography—not architecture—was the genesis of ideas that made her one of the most influential architects of the last century.
It’s fascinating to look at the photographs Denise took in the 50s and 60s in South Africa, Venice and Philadelphia—a time when architects rarely travelled or used cameras. Most of these images preceded her time spent collaborating with Robert Venturi, and exposed her intuitive fascination with popular culture, vernacular forms, and the communication of architectural information. Denise explained to me, as she has done to hundreds of students before me, how photography allowed her to develop ideas, illustrate research findings, and redirect them back towards design.
Coming to architecture from the social sciences, I’ve never cared for the buildings themselves as much as for architecture’s symbolic functions. My work excludes design and construction, and instead investigates architecture and urban practices as a source of contemporary culture. Although we are from different margins of the profession, Denise and I share the conviction that architecture can be a cultural asset and a public good. Her life’s work is testament to the fact that architecture need not materialize into three-dimensional spaces to exert influence. Few virtues can be attributed to bricks and mortar alone, which is why architects should aspire to affect more than the built environment alone.
In order to serve, architecture should venture beyond its traditional domains, accessing other fields of knowledge and helping shape the social, cultural and political dimensions of everyday life. Successful architecture is powered by ideas that effectively cross-pollinate other disciplines and inspire collective action. To endure the test of time, architects need to be ready to produce more than just buildings. This leap of faith takes curiosity, wit, and more importantly, it demands a special kind of courage for a lifetime’s worth of perseverance.
I have always mixed writing, drawing, architecture and speculation
According to Denise, the first function of a building should not be the only program that concerns architects. Therefore, if architecture can have more than one function beyond the material world, shouldn’t architects do more than design? Denise encourages architects, planners and scholar to open a wider window onto the world, to learn from practitioners in different contexts. It’s not enough to just look to oneself—multi-disciplinary processes result in better design because they are more responsive.
Denise was never afraid to branch out and learn about complementary subject matters. She delved deep into social planning and regional economics, which allowed her to understand economic behaviour and social payoffs, such as self-respect and creativity. These are skills no architect should shy away from, and she maintains their continuity. ‘In my work,’ she said, ‘it all goes together. I couldn’t do the one without the other. I’m just like that.’ Denise has paid the price for her interdisciplinary approach to architecture and some architects don’t consider her as one of their own. Her varied interests, including planning, business management, interior design or preservation have been used to unflatteringly characterize her. She is described by some as a great teacher or as having a way with words. She feels an architect at heart, but her unusual skillset makes her an easy target for those worried by the thought that design can originate in two heads, as opposed to just one.
Denise’s early photography offers a template for research, theory and design, a refreshing approach in a time of digital media overload. They are testament to the idea that communication will always be an essential function of architecture. Photography, however, is only one of many conduits for this practice. She’s also a passionate writer, using her words to speak her mind and raise awareness about critical issues across various professional circles. ‘I am a person who uses words in architecture’ she said. ‘As a small child I was very proud of my early language skills.’ The spectrum of these words includes books, lectures and speeches, research manuscripts and planning guidelines, exhibitions and the much-celebrated cartoon drawings of buildings with speech bubbles.